Not your father's voice of America

The International Broadcasting Bureau goes digital to get the word out

U.S. government broadcasting online

By law, the government is not allowed to openly push propaganda on its own citizens. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 bans the domestic broadcast of official American information aimed at foreign audiences.

The Web muddies the distinction between domestic and foreign consumption, as do short-wave radio broadcasts that can be picked up over large portions of the world.

'We don't promote it at all in the U.S.,' IT director Ken Berman said of the IBB's Web presence. But it is available.

If you'd like to find out what the government is telling the rest of the world, here are the Web sites of some IBB broadcast services you can check out.

In addition to text and graphics, these sites offer multiple forms of audio and video:

  • Voice of America (www.voanews.com) offers streaming media, RSS and podcasts.

  • Radio Free Asia (www.fra.org) offers streaming media, RSS and podcasts.

  • Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (www.rferl.org) offers streaming media and RSS.

These sites offer only streaming media along with their text and graphics:

From left to right: Ken Berman, Warren Gordon and John Johnson of the IBB

Rick Steele

If you think of the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe in terms of Cold War, short-wave radio broadcasts, consider this: Apple's iTunes service includes podcasts of six VOA programs among its product offerings.

'We're still primarily a radio broadcaster,' said Joseph D. O'Connell, public affairs director for the International Broadcasting Bureau. 'We still do a considerable amount of short wave. It isn't going to disappear, because of its utility and reliability, but it is becoming less important overall.'

For years now, FM and AM radio and satellite television have been a growing part of the U.S. information program. But more recently, digital content delivery has become a key element in IBB's distribution plans.

'This agency needed an Internet presence,' said IT director Ken Berman. 'We needed to compete with other national broadcast services.'

It is competing by hosting Web sites with rapid delivery of text and graphical data and with streaming live and on-demand video and audio. The bureau also is beginning to adapt content for WAP-enabled cell phones.

'Our goal is to expand the available clients our sites can interact with,' said Warren Gordon, IBB Internet technical services leader.

It's a goal many agencies can empathize with. But doing so requires tools for managing the various types of digital content-Web pages, podcasts, data feeds, etc.'so that mini data silos don't spring up in support of various information media.

Turning to the Net

IBB is an independent agency established in 1994 to provide administrative and engineering support for the government's nonmilitary broadcast services. These services include VOA and Radio and TV Marti, which are federally funded agencies; and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, which are private corporations funded through federal grants.

Worldwide service

Broadcast services now are being provided in 44 languages. These services began after World War II using short wave as their primary medium, bouncing radio signals off the ionosphere to send programming around the world.

IBB still maintains a dozen short-wave stations around the world, including one in California and one in North Carolina. But as people are concentrating more in urban centers, it is becoming easier to reach a growing percentage of a given population through local AM and FM radio stations. IBB has a network of more than 1,300 affiliate stations around the world, a growing number of them fed by satellite links.

Unlike short wave, these stations are subject to local political interference. The Internet provides another medium for getting programming out there. Internet penetration of IBB services varies from country to country.

'It depends on what the infrastructure is and the type of government,' O'Connell said. 'The Chinese block us, and they also jam our short wave in Mandarin and Tibetan,' although they allow English and Cantonese broadcasts.

Asian languages are among the most popular on the VOA Web site, partly because of the penetration of online technology in countries such as South Korea and Japan, Berman said.

Net interest

The bureau's interest in the Internet grew gradually, said John Johnson, director of IBB Internet Services. VOA had an Internet presence before the advent of the Web. When, about five years ago, the Office of Internet Services was formed, the focus became the emerging medium of the Web.

That focus is complicated by the variety of languages IBB supports. It is one thing to broadcast in 44 languages; it is quite another to format Web pages for them.

'Everything we do we essentially do 44 times, because we have to do it for every language,' Johnson said.

'In working with that many languages, most programs don't support them,' Gordon said. 'One of our largest concerns was bringing our content management system to full Unicode compliance.'

Unicode is a universal scheme for assigning numeric codes to characters in every language, supported by most major hardware and software vendors. It makes it possible to distribute content in a variety of languages across different types of platforms.

About one year ago, IBB switched from the open-source Spectra content management software to CommonSpot from PaperThin Inc. of Quincy, Mass.

Because of the language complexities, part of the work of creating responsive sites was done in-house. Tools were developed to speed up the rendering of Web pages by keeping them as static as possible, Gordon said.
'The less interpretation that the server has to do, the faster it can be rendered,' he said. Developing the tool 'was a challenge and took a few iterations.'

IBB also called on outside service providers. Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., originally was tapped to provide content delivery through its global network of servers.

'With the 75 percent decrease in rendering time and by using Akamai, we are consistently one of the fastest Internet services,' Gordon said.

Akamai was retained when the content delivery contract was recompeted last year, and Savvis Federal Systems Inc. of Herndon, Va., was added to the contract, getting a $2.45 million piece of the four-year pie. The second company was added to provide diversity and additional capacity, said contracting officer Gary Hosford.

'You have a spare tire in your car,' Hosford said, and Savvis provides spare servers and links. When the original delivery contract was let, IBB was serving up to 10 or 15 terabytes a month. 'Now we're up to 22.'

A lot of that demand comes in spikes. Some spikes in traffic can be predicted, such as for coverage of Iraqi national elections or the president's State of the Union address. Others cannot be predicted. 'What we didn't know about was the earthquake in Pakistan,' Hosford said. 'A lot of what we're doing with Savvis is surge capacity.'

IBB is the first government contract for Savvis Federal, a subsidiary of Savvis Inc. The parent company has handled major events in the commercial market, such as 2005 Super Bowl online activities for CBS SportsLine.

IBB offers a different set of challenges, said Savvis VP Don Teague. The Super Bowl was a concentrated, 4.5-hour event with text and graphic content. 'That isn't the IBB model,' which requires sustained capacity with multiple media types that have different delivery needs. 'This isn't bits is bits.'

New media in the mix

In recent months, IBB has begun adding Really Simple Syndication and podcasts to its sites. RSS is a lightweight XML format for distributing Web content that allows users to subscribe to feeds of updated material. Content is tagged with static information about the site and dynamic information about the stories themselves to enable rapid updating.

'By definition, podcasting is just an extension of RSS,' that lets users subscribe to feeds or select from lists of audio files, Gordon said. 'The most challenging part of the feature is the content,' keeping the audio files synchronized with the sites' streaming and broadcast content.

Although VOA offers a wide variety of languages, the most popular podcasts are its Special English, Berman said. This uses a limited vocabulary and is delivered slowly for nonnative English speakers.

With the latest content delivery contract in place and formatting content for delivery to mobile devices under way, 'our emphasis now is on hardware restructuring,' Johnson said. Firewalls, storage and Web servers will be upgraded, and search capabilities improved. 'We're just starting to talk about videocasting.'

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